Video chat apps tout “inclusive” AI features By Reuters

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© Reuters. A photo illustration dated June 2, 2021 shows how Google’s new light adjustment feature for its Meet video conferencing tool brightens up the face of an underexposed user due to a window in the background. Google / Document via REUTERS

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By Paresh Dave

(Reuters) – Video conferencing services have bragged for years that their technology is “intuitive” to use or “integrated” to work with other tools, but now vendors such as Google and Cisco can hardly publish an article by blog without touting a different attribute: “understood.”

The latest buzzword, and the product development that goes with it, shows how tech companies have recently focused on assuring black users and other people of color that online chat products won’t leave them behind. . The changes stem in part from the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement – which has prompted salespeople and customers to think beyond the needs of a white English-speaking audience – and the pandemic, which has created a large workforce. “At a distance” heavily dependent on technology.

This month, Alphabet’s Google (NASDAQ 🙂 Inc plans to roll out an artificial intelligence (AI) feature that addresses the long-standing issue of darker, underlit skin tones in video chats.

Cisco Systems Inc (NASDAQ 🙂 in January launched a gesture recognition feature to show a thumbs-up in Webex, ensuring that skin tones do not affect performance. GoToMeeting by LogMeIn (NASDAQ 🙂 Inc, Microsoft Corp (NASDAQ 🙂 ‘s Teams and Facebook Inc (NASDAQ 🙂 ‘s Workplace adds translation or pronunciation options in what it describes as a push for equity.

“Technology is fundamentally not as inclusive today as you want it to be,” said Jeetu Patel, senior vice president and general manager of security and collaboration at Cisco. Fixing “values ​​and principles that a product must defend” has become essential, he said.

The tech industry has long been criticized for its poor record on diversity in the workplace and its failure to recognize the ways in which product design can perpetuate discrimination.

Concerns about bias in videoconferencing resumed last September after Colin Madland, a doctoral student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, tweeted a screenshot https://twitter.com/colinmadland / status / 1307111818981146626 of a black coworker appearing headless when deploying a virtual background on Zoom.

Studies of other AI cultivation systems have shown that they generate more errors with darker skin, in part because the data used to train them mainly included lighter examples.

Zoom’s chief diversity officer, Damien Hooper-Campbell, told Reuters: “The bias was not at play, but rather a combination of the user’s distance to the camera, the use of headphones and sitting. “

Madland said the problem subsided after her colleague bought a green screen and “stylish lighting.”

For Zoom and its rivals, ensuring inclusion could provide an advantage while competing for post-pandemic deals with clients – who are faced with their own diversity calculations.

Global Spending For Cloud-Based Conferencing Expected To Reach $ 5.41 Billion This Year From $ 5.02 Billion In 2020, Says Technology Consulting Firm Gartner (NYSE :). It doesn’t track market share, but analysts cite Zoom and Cisco as the leaders.

“NOT ALSO SHOWN”

Google Meet’s next feature tackles the problem of people appearing darker due to their surroundings, such as when sitting in front of a window, said Niklas Blum, a Google product manager involved with Meet.

“Dark skinned users are not represented equally and we want to create products for everyone,” he said.

The AI ​​separates users from their background, determines if they are underexposed regardless of their skin tone, brightens the image accordingly, and finally merges the background and foreground.

Meet’s virtual waiting room will prompt users to turn on the lighting control when it detects that they could benefit from it, said Stéphane Hulaud, product manager for video quality and processing at Meet.

Blum and Hulaud said Meet first identified problems with video representation when launching low-light enhancement for mobile calling long before the pandemic. Developing the latest feature took a considerable amount of time, but it led Meet to establish product inclusion testing procedures and mandate them for all of their work.

Google is also looking for additional fixes. Meet urges laptop manufacturers and operating systems to share greater control over white balance and camera exposure. Internally, Google has adopted minimum light reflection requirements for conference room designs.

At Cisco, the new gesture recognition option, when enabled, allows users to hold their thumbs on the camera for about a second to generate a virtual thumbs-up on the screen.

Cisco has trained its AI to focus on the contour of shape and the movement of gesture in time and space, reducing potential issues with variation in skin tone, said Keith Griffin, senior engineer. of the company.

Praying hands – for “thank you” – are among the new gesture options coming soon, with a feature that interprets sign language as a possible target. Webex also plans to add skin tone options beyond yellow for the icons.

Mike Sharp (OTC :), LogMeIn’s product manager for unified communications and collaboration, said education customers have driven some of the company’s “inclusion” updates.

For example, the upcoming support for Spanish, Mandarin and other languages ​​in voicemail messages and transcripts will benefit an unidentified California school district that wanted to better engage with its community, Sharp said.

Facebook Workplace, a suite of corporate communications tools, said last month that city hall video hosts would soon see the pronunciation of the names of workers asking written questions.

Product manager Ujjwal Singh said the pointers, generated by AI but editable, were aimed at helping executives at clients such as Nestlé SA (SIX 🙂 and Booking Holdings (NASDAQ 🙂 Inc.

“I don’t want to mispronounce it to thousands of employees and make it look like I’m not in touch with the company,” he said.

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